Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Gnab your chances

‘I would say (a squad needs) 17 or 18 (senior) players and young players. If you have too many (seniors), you never have the chance to give a young player an opportunity. Once you have 25 senior players you can send your academy to the moon because no one will ever get the chance to play.’

Thus spoke Arsene this summer and his words have quickly mocked the meat that they feed upon. With a good deal of Arsenal injuries condensed across the forward line, some of Arsene’s young charges are going to have to step up.

It’s perhaps slightly disingenuous of Arsene to refer to his ‘academy’ in the most puritanical sense of the word. ‘Finishing school’ would probably be a more apposite phrase for it. Arsenal are good at picking up players at the age of 16 or 17 and applying the final touches of development. Jack Wilshere is really the only player anywhere near Arsenal’s first team that arrived as a pre teen. In this sense, Arsenal is more of a college than a school.

It maybe for this reason that there has been such a huge fluctuation in both the coaching staff at youth and reserve level as well as an extraordinary cull of players this summer. In fact, Arsenal have stopped just short of sending their academy to the moon! Anyway, I digress. The club are certainly going to need to call upon some graduates from Colney College. Arsene Wenger described Theo Walcott’s injury as a “huge opportunity” for Serge Gnabry, who is likely to be a starter until the international break at least.

I’ve seen quite a lot of Gnabry in the U-21s over the last 18 months. The first thing to say is that, if you were building a prototype Wenger player, Gnabry would come pretty close. He’s half Ivorian and half German, can play on the left, the right or behind the strikers, small but stocky and powerful, is blessed with two good feet and he eschewed a career as a professional sprinter to play football. Having signed from Stuttgart aged 16, he might not be a product of Arsenal’s academy per se, but he could well have come from Arsene Wenger’s laboratory.

Regular attendees at U-21 games will be accustomed to watching Gnabry bully opponents both physically and technically, taking games to teams single-handedly. Having been fast tracked from the U-18s in early 2012, it’s been clear for quite a while that the U-21s is beneath his ability. However, the leap from reserves to first team is very big at a club like Arsenal. I recall watching Jay Emmanuel Thomas destroy Chelsea’s reserves at walking pace back in 2010, but he didn’t have the mental requirements to bridge the yawning chasm between Monday nights at Barnet and Saturday afternoons at the Emirates.

Gnabry put in a good display against Stoke. I actually quite liked the fact that he clearly began the game very cautiously. He realised before the game had even begun that he wasn’t going to be able to plough his way through Stoke the way he does against more junior teams. That he grew into the game gradually suggests a good level of intelligence. Almost like he was working the game out and acknowledging his inexperience before assessing how much he could impose himself.

At West Brom he was slightly more subdued and often wanted too much time on the ball. I think that’s due in part to growing pains, but also Arsenal’s attack against the Baggies was hardly the most mobile. Bendtner fought for his scraps well enough but rarely looks to go in behind, whilst I think Ryo Miyachi is quite a way out of his depth at this level if I’m honest. Eisfeld showed at West Brom precisely what he’s showed in the U-21s for the last 18 months. He scores and is a good finisher but offers precious little else to the pattern of a game.

Akpom and Gnabry have struck up a good understanding at U-21 level because Chuba is mobile and occupies defenders. He creates space for Gnabry in the final third. Either Akpom occupies defenders and allows Gnabry the chance to unleash his lethal shot, or else defences become anxious about Gnabry’s shooting prowess and try to close him down, leaving space for Akpom in behind. Bendtner’s a slightly different type of striker and the chemistry between the front 3 at the Hawthorns never really fomented.

In the U-21s Gnabry clearly recognises his superior talent and looks to apply it at every opportunity. At that level at least, he is a guy that steps up to the plate. That’s a good personality trait to have and one that will hopefully show itself at a more senior level with time and temperance. There is a very precarious psychological balance that young players have to strike when they are inducted into the first team. On one hand, they have to be confident enough to deal with their errors as they inevitably arise as part of the learning process.

There is an old adage that good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. Kieran Gibbs, Wojciech Szczesny and Aaron Ramsey had mistakes and traumas to surmount early in their Arsenal careers and appear to have come through unscathed. They struck the balance between analysing their errors but not allowing them to inhibit their future performance. It’s a delicate mix of confidence and humility, working in concert.

Players such as Denilson, Philippe Senderos and Alex Manninger were probably just as talented as the aforementioned. The difference is that they allowed their mistakes to haunt them. Yet overconfidence can be just as fatal. I was once very positive about Nicklas Bendtner’s prospects because of his unerring ability to forget his mistakes. In March 2010, he endured a torrid performance against Burnley, missing a host of presentable chances. Four days later he netted a Champions League hat-trick against F.C. Porto. Ultimately, it appears that, like Jay Emmanuel Thomas, Bendtner’s main problem has been hubris.

Gnabry is enormously talented and has the physical and technical attributes to be a valuable member of Arsenal’s squad. We don’t yet know if he has the mental properties, even if the very embryonic signs are encouraging. In truth, we won’t find that out until he makes a costly mistake. Personally, I’d like to have seen captain Thomas Vermaelen recognise Gnabry’s weariness and volunteer the second penalty himself on Wednesday. It is very important that Bacary Sagna stays fit at right back to support Gnabry in this spell. A right side of Jenkinson and Gnabry would be very callow for my liking.

Speaking of Nicklas Bendtner, there were a small flurry of boos when his name was read out by the stadium announcer against Stoke City. I can’t really understand the logic in giving him such a cold reception, I must say. Bendtner is one of those rare cases in football where everybody already knows the score. He wanted to leave, the club wanted him to go, but it just didn’t work out that way. His contract is up next summer so whatever happens, he’ll definitely leave then anyway. Though in fairness, he got a much better reception from us travelling fans at the Hawthorns.

It’s a marriage of convenience and the lack of subterfuge could be quite liberating for both parties. He needs us to secure a good contract at another club, we currently need him because we’re short on strikers. We know it’s a smutty one night stand from the off, there’s no pretense, therefore little need to heckle. Everybody wants love in life, but sometimes an unsentimental one night bit of rutting is just what the doctor ordered. (So long as you’re unattached of course). When everyone knows that it’s a case of “fuck me, then fuck off” from the start hearts don’t tend to get broken. So let’s be mature about this, yeah? LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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